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Barbecue Secrets

I have seen the future, and it will be carbonized: a charcoal primer

Aug 30, 2012

Kingsford bagsIt’s time for us to start weaning ourselves from the convenience of gas grilling and rekindle our relationship with charcoal.

All it takes is one whiff of smoke from some charcoal briquettes, mixed with an aromatic hint of lighter fluid. That distinctive aroma activates an area at the base of our skull that I like to call the Kingsford Olfactory Cortex. The smell of charcoal instantly transports us back to the campfires and cottage weekends of our youth: Dad’s in an apron, burgers are sizzling, hot dogs are plumping up, corn cobs are roasting, and Mom comes out the screen door with a pitcher full of cherry Kool-Aid, ice jingling and sparkling in the summer sun. I think I want to cry.

Those memories never leave us, but few new ones are being made now for our own kids. Sadly, Canadians don’t grill much over charcoal any more. According to Weber’s Grillwatch survey, only about one in 10 Canuck backyard cooks owns a charcoal grill compared to almost half of our counterparts south of the border. 

I know, it’s a lot colder up here, and running outside to push a button on a gas grill is a damn sight easier than going to the trouble and mess of ripping open a bag of charcoal, dumping it into the grill and getting it going, not to mention having to clean up the ashes left behind.

But that convenience comes at a cost. Charcoal imparts such great flavour that there’s almost no comparison between a steak seared on a gas grill and one that’s kissed by smoke. I would argue that pretty much anything tastes better when cooked on a charcoal grill, from your lowly skinless chicken breast to a roast duck. 

Even sweets are lifted to a new level when they’re cooked over charcoal. I’ll never forget an evening at the beach a few years back when, after grilling some brats in my Smoky Joe portable grill, I used the leftover coals to reheat a pear crisp. The vapours from the fire turned a great dessert into a mind-blowing revelation.

A little history

Charcoal has, of course, been around for a long time. Back in the olden days, tradesmen called colliers would stack wood in a giant cone-shaped pile and then cover it with soil or clay, with a hole in the bottom for air and one at the top to serve as a flue. They’d light a smouldering fire and, several days of careful tending later, the wood would be transformed into brittle, clean-burning dark grey charcoal to be used for cooking and heating.
The process of making charcoal, called carbonization, is simple: you heat wood slowly, with little or no oxygen to feed the fire, and instead of burning, the wood shrinks as its organic matter vaporizes. What’s left are porous chunks of charcoal, consisting mostly of carbon, that burn cleaner and hotter than wood.

Charcoal briquettes have also been around for a long time, but the Kingsford briquettes that we know and love were developed in the early 1920s by Henry Ford and one of his relatives, a fellow named E.G. Kingsford. Ford’s early autos had wooden parts and his factories produced lots of wood scrap. A factory was built to turn the scrap into charcoal briquettes. For years, American backyard cooks got their Kingsford charcoal at their local Ford dealership, and today Kingsford converts about a million tons of wood scraps a year into briquettes and owns about 80 per cent of the market.

Rib steaks on the EggeBriquettes vs. lump charcoal: which is best?

Over the last couple of decades, the dominance of briquettes has been challenged by makers of lump charcoal, which is preferred by some cooks because it burns longer and hotter. It’s also purer. Lump charcoal is basically an organic product – pure carbonized hardwood – whereas Kingsford and other briquettes are made from charred woods that are mixed with mined coal, limestone, starch, sodium nitrate and borax (or sodium borate).

The modern, all-natural foodie ethic clashes with the idea of food cooked over this chemical package. But man, those additives are what make Kingsford start easily, burn evenly, and provide its distinctive aroma and flavour. The bottom line: meat cooked with Kingsford tastes great.

My barbecue team, Rockin’ Ronnie’s Butt Shredders, has been competing for almost 20 years now, and we’ve always used good old Kingsford briquettes, with a few chunks of hardwood like hickory, mesquite and cherry wood added for extra flavour. My view is that if you want to win the hearts, minds and taste buds of the barbecue judges, you’ve got to hit that Kingsford nerve hard, and we’ve got plenty of cheap plastic trophies to show our strategy works. As for the unnatural additives, last time I looked, life causes death. I like to think that most of us can handle a little borax in our lives without getting into a big panic. In fact, panic is known to cause more deaths than borax.

Despite my love of briquettes, I swing both ways when it comes to charcoal. While I’m loyal to Kingsford for cooking Southern-style barbecue, I often use pure hardwood lump charcoal when I’m grilling. It generates excellent heat for searing and charring, and if you want to add extra flavour, all you need to do is toss some wood chips or chunks on top of the hot coals just before you’re ready to grill. Close the lid of your grill and you’ve got a perfect hot, smoky chamber that will make whatever you’re grilling sing. Another advantage of lump charcoal is that it produces much less ash, which makes it great for kamado-style cookers, which quickly clog up and lose their air flow when you try to cook on them using briquettes.

What kind of charcoal cooker to buy

Speaking of the urn-shaped kamado, it’s one of the hottest pieces of cooking equipment out there right now. The classic Big Green Egg has long been the Cadillac of charcoal cookers, but in recent years many knock-offs have come onto the market, including the Primo, the Big Steel Keg and the Kamado Joe. Even the cheapest models will set you back $600, and the high-end brands can cost a lot more than that. This ceramic cooker is based on an ancient Asian design, and it’s extremely versatile, allowing you to smoke a pork shoulder at 200 degrees or sear a steak at 700F or even higher.

If you don’t want to shell out for an Egg, there are lots of extremely cheap charcoal grills on the market that are great to take to the beach or on a camping trip, but they don’t last long and they don’t work all that well. You can’t go wrong with a good old Weber kettle-style covered charcoal grill, which is a solid, versatile cooker that will set you back a couple of hundred bucks.

For picnics, camping and boating, nothing beats the Cobb, a portable charcoal grill that’s among the most versatile and convenient cooking tools I’ve ever used. Every outdoor cook should have a Cobb in his or her arsenal.

If you want to graduate to the world of Southern-style barbecue, the perfect entry-level device is Weber’s Smokey Mountain Cooker, nicknamed the Bullet. It’s a specialized device that will introduce you to a big new world of flavour, but it’s not for the dabbler.

How to start your coals

Barbecue purists don’t approve of chemical fire starters like the smelly white cubes or the kerosene-like liquid starter you get at the supermarket. Aficionados like to start their coals using a charcoal chimney, which isn’t much more than a metal cylinder with a handle on it. You put your charcoal in it, and there’s a little chamber at the bottom where you place a couple of balled-up pieces of newspaper. Light the newspaper, wait for about 15 minutes, and you’ve got a chimney full of hot coals – just enough to grill a few pork chops. You can also use it as a seed fire for a bigger quantity of charcoal that you can use for longer cooking projects and bigger cuts of meat.

My preferred method is to light up a tiger torch – a propane torch usually used by roofers to melt tar – and point its roaring flame at the coals you’ve loaded in your grill or smoker for a minute or two. That’s kind-of hardcore, however -- I do it not only for convenience but also to intimidate my opponents at barbecue contests. 

Let’s start a fire together

As a self-proclaimed barbecue evangelist, I encourage you to welcome charcoal into your life. It will free your taste buds from the humdrum world of propane and bring back a bit of old-fashioned ritual to your grilling. Here are a few of my favourite recipes for dishes that taste best when cooked over coals, from my cookbook, Barbecue Secrets DELUXE!

Spice-Crusted Pork Blade Steaks

Makes 6 servings

I love pork blade steaks because they’re inexpensive, extremely tasty, and very hard to ruin. The cumin seeds add an earthy tang and an interesting texture to these rich, chewy steaks. Serve them with your favorite summer sides (I like grilled asparagus and cherry tomatoes).

For the rub:
2 Tbsp | 25 mL powdered ancho chiles
(if you can’t find ground anchos, any chili powder will do)
1 Tbsp | 15 mL granulated garlic
1 Tbsp | 15 mL granulated onion
1 tsp | 5 mL freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp | 5 mL ground chipotles (substitute cayenne pepper if you can’t find ground chipotles)
1 tsp | 5 mL dried oregano
1 tsp | 5 mL dried parsley

For the steaks:
1 Tbsp | 15 mL cumin seeds
6 pork blade steaks (8 to 10 oz | 225 to 300 g each)
kosher salt
2 Tbsp | 25 mL Dijon mustard (regular prepared mustard will also do)
extra virgin olive oil

Combine the rub ingredients in a small bowl and set the rub aside.
            Toast the cumin seeds in a dry sauté pan over medium heat until they’re fragrant and just starting to turn light brown. Remove the cumin from the pan and set it aside.
            Generously season the blade steaks with salt. Using the back of a spoon or a basting brush, coat the steaks with a thin layer of mustard. Sprinkle the cumin seeds on both sides of the steaks and pat them in so they stick to the mustard. Sprinkle a generous coating of rub on the steaks and drizzle them with a little olive oil. (You’ll have rub left over, which is great for grilling just about anything.)
            Prepare your grill for high direct heat. Place the steaks on the cooking grate, close the grill, and immediately reduce the heat to medium. I like to throw a chunk of hickory or mesquite among the coals just before I start cooking to add an extra dimension of flavour.
            Cook the steaks for 8–10 minutes, turning them once or twice, or until they are springy to the touch. Remove the steaks from the grill, tent them with foil, and let them rest for 5 minutes. Drizzle them with a little olive oil and serve.

Seared Calamari with Fresh Tomato Basil Salsa

Makes 4 servings

The secret to great grilled squid is to use the freshest and smallest you can find, and to cook it over high heat for no more than a minute per side. Any longer and it turns rubbery. In this recipe, the tomato salsa provides a cool, tangy, herbal complement to the hot, garlicky calamari.

1 lb | 500 g cleaned squid, equal parts bodies and tentacles
1 Tbsp | 15 mL kosher salt
1/2 cup | 125 mL extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp | 2 mL red pepper flakes
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups | 500 mL small, ripe cherry or grape tomatoes
1 Tbsp | 15 mL fresh basil
1 Tbsp | 15 mL rice vinegar or white wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground pepper

Coat the squid in the salt, then rinse it thoroughly with cold water. Pat it dry with paper towels. Slit the bodies and score the inside surfaces with diagonal cuts. Cut each squid into bite-sized pieces. Place them in a bowl with 1/4 cup | 50mL of the olive oil, the red pepper flakes, and the garlic. Toss them to coat them and marinate them in the refrigerator for about an hour.
            Preheat your charcoal grill on high and in this case keep the lid off for maximum combustion. Using hardwood charcoal in a kettle-style grill works best. Try to time it so you put the squid on the grill when the coals are at their hottest, which is right after they’re all ignited. You can tell coals are ready when they’ve got a light coating of white ash. While the grill is heating, coarsely chop the tomatoes (halves or quarters are fine), slice the basil leaves into fine shreds, and toss them together in a bowl with the vinegar and the remainder of the olive oil. Distribute the salsa between four plates.
When the grill is hot, gently place the calamari on the cooking grate, taking care not to let the pieces slip through the cracks (you may even want to use a grill-topper with small holes designed for this kind of task). Don’t walk away! Stand at the open grill and tend the squid with a set of good tongs, turning the pieces often so they cook quickly and evenly, no more than a minute per side. Remove the squid from the grill and transfer it to the plates.
Sprinkle each serving with just a pinch of kosher salt and a light grinding of pepper. Drizzle the calamari with a little more olive oil and serve it immediately with a crisp, fruity white wine.

This article originally appeared in Calgary's City Palate magazine.